Continuing protests in Montenegro have led to a further chilling relations between Podgorica and Moscow, with Montenegro accusing Russia of meddling in its effort to join NATO and the Russians accusing Montenegro of using the protests to “demonize” Russia.
The protests began in Podgorica in late September, and, led by some leaders of the Democratic Front opposition party, intensified through October and resulted in skirmishes between police and protesters with police firing tear gas and skirmishing with protesters, leading to many injuries.
Protesters say they are rallying to protest corruption in the government of Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic and to demand his resignation and snap elections or an interim government.
For his part, Djukanovic says he has no doubt what motivates the protesters:
“There is no need for an interpretation – Russia has sent three very clear and very direct messages through its Ministry of Foreign Affairs. So, I do not need to interpret them because the messages are more than direct and more than explicit,” he said Monday in Ljubljana when asked by the media to explain his complaint that Russia is behind the protests.
As relations continued to chill between Moscow and Podgorica, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov said he was surprised at a recent Djukanovic statement about Russia’s involvement in the protests and reiterated the Kremlin’s claims that the statement “is a part of an existing habit to demonize Russia”.
Then the Montenegrin Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the ideas of Russian involvement arefounded in the statements issued by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and representatives of the State Duma.
Relations have reached a phase of tension, unusual given the history of the two countries.
Official Montenegro, once part of Serbia, had close political relations with Russia in the 1990s founded on tight historical ties. That led to intense economic relations in the past decade, which led to a lot of Russian investments and to Montenegro’s status as a Russian vacation destination. It also led to Russian investment in some big Montenegrin companies – which led to their closure, not prosperity.
Then Montenegro, under Djukanovic, began to shift toward the West, hoping to eventually join the EU and counting on an invitation to join NATO, perhaps as soon as December.
After the protests erupted in violence on Oct. 17, the prime minister asserted that Russian and Serbian forces were behind the turmoil, and they hoped protests might stymie Montenegro’s Western ambitions.
Then the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a press release expressing the Kremlin’s regret over developments in Montenegro, and also concluding that getting Montenegro in the process of Euro-Atlantic integration wouldnot lead to the country’s consolidation and prosperity.
Such reaction by Moscow only gave support to those who claimed that Russia is involved in the protests with goal to prevent Montenegro from receiving an invitation to join NATO in December.
In a recent interview for a Podgorica-based TV outlet, Montenegrin Deputy Prime Minister Dusko Markovic said the Russian statement offered “direct, direct support “of the protests.
Prominent foreign policy analyst from Serbia Bosko Jaksic told RFE that he had previously talked about “a new cold war starting in Montenegro”.
He said: “The moment the Russian Foreign Ministry published an official statement in which the Montenegrin move, namely the announcement of intensifying its NATO integration after Prime Minister Djukanovic’s visit to Washington last year, was described as hostile, the tensions increased and then the situation was calm for some time, and it exploded after [NATO Secretary-General Jens] Stoltenberg’s visit to Podgorica – which was seen by the Russian as evidence of that hostility.”
Russia can, added Jaksic, agree with having the Southeastern European countries joining the EU, but it cannot agree with NATO expansion into Western Balkans despite the fact it is far away from its borders.
He said: “It is clear that Moscow does not support Montenegro’s getting closer to NATO. If I had to predict the future of Podgorica-Moscow relations, I think the tensions will remain there in the next period.”